Among the encyclical titles of St. John Paul II are many mighty themes: Faith and Reason, Splendor of the Truth, The Gospel of Life. But there is one that seems a little out of place: The Apostles to the Slavs.
It tells the story of the saints the Church celebrates on February 14: two brothers who evangelized Eastern Europe and Russia — Saints Cyril and Methodius — and it can seem like the pontiff only elevated the document to encyclical status with the others because he was Polish.
But reading the encyclical reveals something more: The Holy Father sees Cyril and Methodius as patron saints for all who evangelize in a hostile land, and their example applies to everyone from Elizabeth Ann Seton, who evangelized Protestant America, to each of us living in a time of the New Evangelization. Here is what their lives can teach us…
First, to evangelize, you have to leave your comfort zone.
Cyril (826–869) and Methodius (815–885) were living at an idyllic monastery on Mount Olympus in modern-day Turkey where they were studying and praying. But then a prince called for Christian missionaries and Cyril and Methodius were given the job. “For them, this task meant giving up not only a position of honor but also the contemplative life,” writes St. John Paul.
This meant leaving the like-minded and highly cultured people on their mountaintop and packing off to live with the barbaric Slavs who practiced a terrifying pagan religion.
In other words, to evangelize effectively, they had to leave their comfort zone. So did Elizabeth Ann Seton.
As a young married woman Elizabeth lived in the Financial District of New York, with its cobblestone streets and entertainment on every corner. Later, as she left her life behind to care for her husband in the journey that led to her conversion, she had to avoid thinking of “past pleasures,” she said. “I could cry like a child at the thought of them, but resolved to brave the future.”
We are each only successful for Jesus Christ to the degree that we’re able to interrupt our beloved routines for the sake of others.
Second, you have to embrace others’ lives totally.
St. John Paul said of Cyril and Methodius: “They desired to become similar in every aspect to those to whom they were bringing the Gospel; they wished to become part of those peoples and to share their lot in everything” — even when that meant adopting primitive customs.
St. Elizabeth Ann also believed in opening herself to the customs of others to advance in the spirit. This flexibility allowed her, a New York Episcopalian, to learn from Italians when she visited their country, an experience which led to her entering the Catholic Church. In later years, when her son William went to Italy, she told him he should “not give way to National prejudices, but to allow for many customs and manners you will see.”
When Elizabeth received children to teach, she embraced them in the fullest way imaginable: As Christ himself. “[H]onor the Sacred infancy of Jesus in the young persons,” instructed the rule of religious life she chose.
“No one will care what you know until they know that you care,” goes the saying. This is especially true in evangelization.
Third, you have to speak the language of those you are serving.
John Paul reports that the Slavs had been unsuccessfully evangelized before. “Many Christian teachers have reached us from Italy, from Greece and from Germany, who instruct us in different ways,” they complained. “But we Slavs … have no one to direct us towards the truth and instruct us in an understandable way.”
Saints Cyril and Methodius not only learned the Slavs’ language, they invented its first written forms, creating the Cyrillic alphabet, and translated the Bible and Catholic liturgies into it.
For her part, when she started her school, St. Elizabeth Ann was known to be sensitive to the personalities of her pupils and insisted the sisters were “bound to love, instruct and provide for the happiness” of “many children of different dispositions.”
In the New Evangelization, we can’t expect others to learn our language of philosophical and theological concepts, but we have to embrace the language of those we want to reach.
Fourth, to truly evangelize you need to be faithful to the Church.
“To defend its legitimacy and prove its value, St. Methodius, at first together with his brother and then alone, did not hesitate to answer with docility the invitations to come to Rome,” said Pope John Paul II. They had created much that required review by Church authorities, including their innovative vernacular liturgies and Scriptures.
Elizabeth also submitted her plans and proposals to the Church, via Bishop John Carroll, and she was faithful to the superiors given to the new community she founded, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, even when she had to express her personal disapproval of them.
This is a hallmark of evangelization from St. Paul right up to today: Catholics defer to Peter and the successors to the Apostles, the bishops. This can go against the grain of our plans sometimes, but it ensures that we are laboring for God’s will, and not our own.
Fifth and last, to evangelize in a new place you have to be innovative.
Saints Cyril and Methodius “realized that an essential condition of the success of their missionary activity was to transpose correctly Biblical notions and Greek theological concepts into a very different context of thought and historical experience,” St. John Paul II wrote. “It was a question of a new method of catechesis.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was also an innovator, proving herself willing and able to apply the French concepts of the rule of the Daughters of Charity to the realities of the new United States of America.
Mother Seton’s innovations in education have been the subject of study over the years. In 1810, she welcomed the first students to a free school which would inspire the parochial school system. In 1812 she influenced the fine-tuning of the rules of her congregation to stress the education of girls. In 1820, Elizabeth proposed using the Lancastrian model of education, the rarer of two models of education in England, though her proposal was rejected.
We have a lot to learn from Cyril and Methodius.
May they watch over the New Evangelization so that, we, like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, will do whatever is necessary reach the people of our time and place with the life-saving message of the Gospel.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
This reflection was originally published in 2020.